A whooping cough outbreak has hit Bonner County with 23 cases of the contagious disease confirmed in the last week.
The number is expected to rise.
“At this point, we are not really sure of the extent of it, but we know it’s not stopped,” Brenda Swenson, a nurse at Panhandle Health District, said Monday. “We were very busy over the weekend and today testing people.”
Since Friday, about 70 people have been tested for whooping cough, also known as pertussis. The results of those tests won’t be known until today.
“It’s likely to get worse before it gets better,” said Swenson.
The respiratory disease is serious and can be life-threatening for infants and young children if they are not treated.
Most of the cases have been linked to Sagle Elementary School south of Sandpoint. A child there contracted the illness and spread it to classmates and a teacher’s aide.
Kootenai County has reported two pertussis cases in the past week and handled 14 last month.
“We do seem to get a little flare-up every year, but any cases of pertussis are unusual. It’s a bad and frightening disease that can be prevented,” said Marie Rau, public health nursing supervisor for Panhandle Health District.
This is the third time in three years Bonner County has battled whooping cough. In 1994 the number of cases reached near epidemic proportions with about 160 people contracting the disease.
Health officials blame the outbreaks on lack of immunizations for children. Adults also can contract whooping cough but typically get a less severe case, Rau said.
During the 1994 outbreak only 31 percent of Bonner County’s 2-year-olds had received proper vaccinations. That number now is about 41 percent.
That’s way too low to prevent ongoing cases of pertussis, Swenson said.
“For a community to be disease-free the vaccination rate needs to be at 90 percent,” she said. “If we can bring that rate up we can take care of these kind of problems and keep from getting hit with this.”
Because of poor vaccination rates, Idaho led the nation last year in cases of whooping cough per capita.
State law requires students be immunized when they register for school, but shots for whooping cough are not required.
Some parents decline to get their children the vaccinations, worrying about side-effects from the drugs and questioning the effectiveness.
“Twenty to 30 percent of immunized children can still be susceptible, but if they do manage to get it (pertussis) it’s a much less severe case,” Rau said.
The symptoms of whooping cough include a runny nose, watery eyes and an irritating cough. The cough often worsens, prompting gagging, vomiting and the person to make a whooping sound as they struggle to breathe.
The bacteria that cause the disease are easily spread by infected people coughing and sneezing. Being in close contact with an infected person for several hours, such as in a classroom, is another common way to transmit the disease.
Those who have whooping cough are put on antibiotics and not allowed to return to school for five days.
Swenson advised anyone who suspects they may have whooping cough to see their doctor and be tested. Children 6 years old and under should be immunized. Sandpoint’s health district will have an immunization clinic Thursday from 3 to 4:30 p.m.
Health officials recommend anyone who has been in contact with an infected person to check with their doctor who can prescribe a preventative antibiotic.
“The message that really needs to get out is that children who are not fully immunized need to get their shots,” Swenson said.